Several years ago, I was waiting for my luggage in New York City when I turned around and saw a woman holding a sign that said "Frank McCourt." I knew he was going to be speaking at the conference I was attending, but still I gave a little gasp. Maybe I'd actually see him up close—a writer whose work I loved.
I grabbed my bag, called my office on my cell phone to check in, and looked up to see a small man smiling sweetly at the woman with the sign. It was Frank McCourt.
"Say something to him!" my colleague on the phone said.
I couldn't. I just looked at him. Weirdly, if I hadn't loved his writing, I could have spoken. But because he was someone I so admired, I was struck dumb.
I loved his first book, Angela's Ashes, the moving and funny and poignant story of his childhood growing up in poverty in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. I also loved 'Tis and Teacher Man—especially Teacher Man. I loved the way he talked so openly of his struggles and self doubt as a teacher. Yet anyone could tell, reading the book, that he must have become a great teacher.
Two years ago, I happened to encounter McCourt again, this time in a crowded New York City elevator. He was inches away from me. It took me a couple of floors to screw up my courage, but I finally did it. I said simply, "Mr. McCourt, I really love your work."
He smiled, gave a dignified nod, and said, "Thank you." Then the elevator doors opened, and he got off.
It may not seem a big deal, but I was glad to have that tiny exchange. I have always been so touched by the humanity, the humor, the wisdom in his work. And whenever I find myself thinking, "Oh, I'm too old to try that," I think of McCourt and how his first book was published when he was 65. One of his best lines: "F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I've proven him wrong."
Frank McCourt died yesterday at age 78. I am saddened at his passing, but happy to know he will live on, through his words, for many years to come.